The research and development facility being built in the McFarland area by fruit breeder International Fruit Genetics LLC comes with hopes it will attract not just top scientific talent but also partner companies in the global push for plants that are better suited to extreme weather, drought, disease and labor shortage.
IFG had employee recruitment in mind when it designed the property’s series of laboratories, including what would be Kern County’s first private-sector, federally certified clean plant-growing facility. The facility’s university-like campus was laid out for top biologists from around the country to “feel at home and motivated,” CEO Andy Higgins said.
But that’s not what Higgins was referring to when he said the company’s vision was that “if you build it, they will come.” He meant IFG expects to attract and collaborate with automation companies and those using sensor-based algorithms for optimizing moisture and sunlight. The $14 million project follows the recent opening of a similar facility in Wasco by fellow fruit breeder Sun World International LLC. Both are introducing high technology to Kern County agriculture in ways expected to extend across the globe.
Higgins said Fruitworks / The IFG Discovery Center, now about halfway built and expected to fully open in fall 2023, was a big part of the reason IFG received a purchase offer from food breeder SNFL Investments LLC, a subsidiary of Spanish conglomerate AM Fresh and its minority partner in the transaction, Swedish investment firm EQT Future. AM Fresh wanted an R&D presence in North America for work on joint projects, he said, adding that the McFarland complex will be bigger than the Spanish company’s own labs in Europe.
During a tour Wednesday of the 160-acre facility along Elmo Highway, Higgins went over the painstaking measures IFG uses to identify favorable plant traits, including long stems and consistent bunch sizes for purposes of automation. He explained plans to run 20,000-plus seedlings per year through a series of tests to see how well they hold up to weather and water extremes, shipping and consumer tastes. “It’s a big investment, but we know there’s big challenges coming down the road,” he said.
The project consolidates IFG’s operations around Kern and brings more functions in-house. Fruitworks is expected to have 25,000 square feet of greenhouses, plus laboratory and support buildings totaling 28,000 square feet. Hundreds of fruit varieties already grow in the property’s vineyards and cherry orchards. The property is expected to allow IFG to expand its staff of about 55 by as many as 17 scientists and other researchers.
Much of the attraction of Fruitworks, Higgins expects, is its scientific rigor. There will be a pathology lab in which plants known to be free of impurities will be exposed to diseases, and next to it, a biology and general chemistry lab where the company expects to learn more about flavor and the experience of eating fruit.
From there Higgins continued to a tissue culture lab space where small plant cells will be grown inside test tubes in a strictly sterile environment. Clones of these plants will be exported overseas to growers that pay for a license to grow IFG’s varieties.
Next, he showed off an incomplete greenhouse planned to be certified as clean by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After that, he proceeded to another greenhouse where plant cuttings will be exposed to temperature and drought extremes, and from there, to a “hard-knock” area putting fruit plants through even tougher conditions.
A cold storage area was Higgins’ next stop, with its post-harvest physiology lab for testing fruit varieties against a list of performance measures. Among other hurdles to be cleared is a requirement grapes taste the same 45 days after harvest as they do when freshly picked.
Behind the laboratory complex stand row after row of vineyards filling with grape varieties with names like Bebop, Julep and Quip, chosen for their easy pronunciation and lack of negative connotations in at least 12 different languages. Many of the grapes showed surface waxiness, a characteristic sometimes mistaken for pesticide, but which actually offers protection and fetches a premium in Asian markets.
Some of the grapes were red, some green or yellow; others were black, a sign of highest antioxidant concentration. Raisins growing nearby were drying on the vine, an improvement to conventional processes that either cost more or risk moisture damage. In July IFG patented its first raisin variety, which Higgins said was a first for a private-sector breeder. Drying on the vine also makes for easier automation, he added. “That’s what the California industry is really looking for,” he said.